Is The Commonwealth Writers’ Prize biased?

By Emmanuel Monychol

I would like to congratulate Aminatta Forna (Sierra Leone) author of Memory of Love and Cynthia Jele (South Africa) author of Happiness is a four-letter word for winning this year’s Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book and Best First Book Africa region respectively.

While announcing this year’s winners, Dr. Mark Collins, the director of Commonwealth Foundation said in a press release that the commonwealth writers’ prize aims to reward the best of commonwealth fiction written in English and underlines our commitment to promoting cultural exchange and diversity. In the same statement, David Clarke, chairman of Macquarie Group Foundation, the main supporters of the prize added that the prize plays a valuable role in recognising and rewarding diverse literary talents and, in so doing, connects global communities.

Cynthia Jele
Cynthia Jele, winner of 2011 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for the Best First Book

I have had a keen interest in this prize for the past five years or so however, I think I have come to the conclusion that Commonwealth Foundation is partial in its selection of the winning titles for Africa region which, to me, contravenes the statements by the two directors quoted above.

Take this year’s selection for instance. The shortlists for both Africa’s Best Book and Africa’s First Best carried the names of authors only from two regions of the continent: west and south. The previous four years (from 2007-2010) have not been any different. The winners in both categories were also from only two regions: south and west, and in particular, Nigeria and South Africa.

Why is it that only writers from these two regions are the dominant faces? To a young African writer like myself from another part of the region, how encouraging is this mode of selection? Do I, as an emerging African young writer who is born, bred and educated in eastern Africa have the chance to have my book selected?

Commonwealth Foundation needs to come up with an-all inclusive strategy that will see other writers from other parts of the continent compete for this prize. I do not believe that African writers living in other parts of the continent are not as good as those from west and South Africa; they only need to be given an equal chance to compete.

Here are my recommendations how the Commonwealth Foundation can enable writers from other parts of the continent to compete at the same level as those from the south and west.

1.Commonwealth Foundation should provide assistance to African writers’ organizations in East Africa like Kwani Trust, (Kenya) FEMRITE – Uganda Women Writers Association (Uganda) and African Writers Trust, so they can conduct more mentoring and writing workshops for budding African writers living in region.

2. Commonwealth Foundation should send one of the winning authors to other parts of the region to mentor young writers living on the continent. African Writers Trust has been struggling to make this possible for us in Uganda for the past two years. In 2010, African Writers Trust brought to Uganda Ms. Sade Adeniran, winner of the 2008 Commonwealth Writers Prize- First Best Book Africa region who mentored and trained us in writing skills. We need to benefit from the winning brains of ‘The Africa Best Book and ‘The Africa Best First Book’. And since it is not possible for us to meet them, Commonwealth Foundation should send them to us here in the eastern, central and northern regions to train us and show us how they made it.

3.Commonwealth Foundation should make the titles of the winning books available to writers living on th

e continent so they can read and learn from these ‘experts.’

Or else, Commonwealth Foundation should put in place a prize specifically for South Africans and West Africans, and a different one for the rest of continent.

In conclusion, however, I am thankful to the Commonwealth Foundation for making it possible for African writing to feature prominently across the globe. And for those of us living on the continent, we hope we will make it someday. Where there is hope, there is a will.

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